Welcome to Hampden, let me show you to your seat - actually just take the whole row

I haven’t always been a sports reporter. Pipe down, all those hollering: “We didnae ken you ever were!” My first match viewed from the pressbox, though, was a 12.15pm semi-final for Inverness Caley Thistle just about the length of the country from the Highlands, so all those fans trekking to Hampden on Saturday for such an ungodly kick-off, I feel your pain.
Falkirk and Inverness do battle at Hampden in a repeat of the 2015 Scottish Cup final - and the number of fans is likely to be much lower this time around.Falkirk and Inverness do battle at Hampden in a repeat of the 2015 Scottish Cup final - and the number of fans is likely to be much lower this time around.
Falkirk and Inverness do battle at Hampden in a repeat of the 2015 Scottish Cup final - and the number of fans is likely to be much lower this time around.

The earlier tie was in the League Cup in 2014, ICT vs Hearts at Easter Road, when despite the team finishing with nine men the recently-installed John Hughes engineered a lusty triumph to encourage the hardy travellers to begin forgetting all about the Terry Butcher years. (El Tel, of course, would switch to Hibernian whose supporters would swiftly be attempting to erase all memory of him ever being their manager).

My job that day hadn’t been an account of the match but to supply what we in the trade call “colour”. How much of that do you reckon was in evidence on a perishingly cold Sunday morning in February? Not a lot.

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The pubs were shut, the cafes barely open. On the streets of Leith’s enemy territory the Jambos were never going to be in the mood for loitering imaginatively, while the handful I encountered from Caley Thistle looked as weary as a 6am departure from Forres had entitled them to be.

An ICT quartet and your correspondent were stood chatting outside a massage parlour, also closed, which must have looked odd if not downright desperate, not least to the church across the road where the good, God-fearing folk were the only ones able to get it on at that time of the morning.

Which makes me wonder … what the hell are the Inverness faithful going to do to entertain themselves pre-match on Saturday? Does a Greggs signature breakfast really qualify as part of a grand day out at the last-but-one stage of a national cup competition?

Mind you, these supporters should be used to such harsh treatment by now. For the 2019 Scottish Cup semi, also against Hearts, they were dragged down to Hampden for another 12.15 kickoff. Dictated by TV, of course, and doubtless the need for additional repair time for the Mount Florida cabbage-patch before the second tie the following day. And here we go again.

The fans will have coping strategies. Tried and trusted routines involving the packing of portable games, good books – who knows, maybe even the Good Book.

But should they even be dragged as far as Hampden? Not for this semi, they shouldn’t. Not when Falkirk are the opposition. Absolutely no disrespect intended here, but what’s the atmosphere going to be like with the national stadium only half-full? The supporters, both sets, will rattle around like a medium-sized bag of frozen peas has been emptied into an oil drum.

The start-time is against the game having any sense of occasion, or the chance to be a decent spectacle - so too the £38 tickets. And two modest clusters of fans will hardly amount to a good look for the Scottish when it continues to lack a sponsor.

Can I show you to your seat, sir? Actually, why don’t you take the whole row. Saturday is shaping to be a pretty forlorn affair, which will be a shame for two clubs who don’t often get this far, although football’s beaks can’t actually prevent the game from being an absolute cracker, try as they might. And one lot of supporters will go home delirious, so I don’t suppose they’ll care overmuch that in the ground their songs of victory will be all echoey.

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Some from both clubs will be boys and girls on their very first visit to Hampden. They won’t have slept the night before; they’ll be excited the whole journey, even if that journey began all the way up in Inversnecky. They should not be denied that thrill, but unfortunately when they arrive, Hampden will be Hampden, as it always is.

The music will be too loud, the announcements slightly smarmy. If you’re unlucky enough to be stuck up the back behind one of the goals, the views will be terrible. Again, none of this relly matters if your team wins the game, and especially, wins the cup. But why can’t these occasions be the grand days out they should be?

Fans like to get to semis and finals early but at Hampden there’s little point and certainly not when the kickoff is 12.15. How many times can you circumnavigate the stadium, first clockwise and then - woo-hoo - anti-clockwise, before you’re bored out of your skull? For how long can you hang about the car park, wander the suburban crescents, peruse the shelves of the Toryglen Asda when it doesn’t have a middle aisle full of quirky special offers like Lidl?

On Saturday newcomers to the Hampden experience might feel like they’re in a dismal, second-generation reality show. The kind which throws its contestants into a disorienting setting and just lets them get on with it. There’s one on TV at the moment where the competitors are challenged to live in a bunker for eight days in total darkness. Honestly, that sounds more fun than trudging the environs of Scottish football’s spiritual home waiting for the match to start.

The pro-Hampden lobby for such games says that moving them elsewhere would be denying some players maybe their one and only opportunity on the national stadium’s grass. Well, the supporters are the most important people here. ICT vs Falkirk should be played somewhere like Dundee for a thumping sell-out. And on the walk from the train station up to Tannadice or Dens there’s a chance you’ll happen across a record shop.

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